Archive for September, 2015
Here is a fun game I like to play when I go to wine country or when I hang out with other sommeliers/wine professionals. I like to ask each– their top 5 favorites of a wine category–whether it is Pinot Noir, regional Ligurian, unclassified Bordeaux, great values, or whatever they may insights into. Then from there, those that I don’t know, I start doing research on them.
It’s quick, fun & certainly a learning opportunity.
Here is a note from our dear wine friend, Bruce Neyers that really moved me. I thought you might want to read it too.
“Dixon reports on word just in from Thierry Allemand that Noël Verset died over this past weekend. Dixon called him, “A kind and gentle soul with a genie’s touch with the Syrah”.
Those of you who accompanied me on the early KLWM France trips will no doubt remember the tastings with Noël, on the packed earth floor of his ancient cellars in Cornas. His eyes twinkled like a fairy tale elf as he bounded up and down the ladder to draw samples out of the casks, some of them used for winemaking by his grandfather. I have one bottle of Noël’s Cornas left in my cellar. I plan to drink it next Saturday night, and think about this remarkable man who so changed my life. All of us who had a chance to meet him should take a moment and reflect on our good fortune. For those of you who might not have seen it, a few years ago I wrote a remembrance of my first meeting with Noël, on my 1993 Kermit Lynch trip to France with Ehren Jordan. I wanted to read it again while thinking of Noël, and I thought you might enjoy one last look at this remarkable man.
The World’s Greatest Syrah, and a Teardrop
I met Noël Verset in 1993, on my first trip to France for Kermit Lynch. Although he was then in his late seventies, he was still actively working the vines and making wine. Kermit had arranged a two-week trip for me to meet his growers; the itinerary that he laid out started in Alsace and ended 12 days later in Marseilles. My friend and former colleague, Ehren Jordan, had moved to France a few months earlier and was working for Jean Luc Columbo in Cornas. I was pleasantly surprised when Ehren offered to take some vacation time and join me for the trip. He said it would give him a chance to visit some other regions and taste a wide range of wines. I welcomed the prospect of another driver and especially an interpreter. After meeting at the airport in Strasbourg in early January, we traveled through France together — visiting many of Kermit’s suppliers and tasting their wines. I was learning as much as I could about the wines, their history, their production techniques, and any other details that would help me sell them.
After a short drive through Alsace, we continued on to Burgundy, then to Chalonnaise, Mâcon and Beaujolais. We entered the northern Rhône in Vienne. From Côte-Rôtie we drove to Condrieu. After stopping to visit a producer in St. Joseph, we drove on to Hermitage. All along this part of the route we tasted Syrah. In many places, we tasted Syrah like I had never tasted before, for we were in the home of that seductive wine. After a tasting with Gérard Chave, in Mauves, we drove on to Cornas for another visit, followed by dinner at a local hotel. Ehren was excited to return to Cornas; this was his new home. As the only American living in the region, he was a celebrity, well known by many of the locals. Everywhere we went, people would see his large white American car with its Pennsylvania license plates, and begin to wave at us enthusiastically. Since he didn’t want to be late for our appointment with Noël Verset, we sped through the tiny back streets of this ancient town. At the end of what seemed like a deserted alley, we parked the car and walked towards a sign noting the cellars of Noël Verset, Vigneron. We rang the bell and were immediately greeted by the short and cherubic Noël.
He was delighted to see Ehren. As I learned during our tasting, Noël’s wife of over 50 years had died four years before and, since his two daughters had long ago married and moved out of the area, he was living alone. Over the previous few months, he and Ehren had formed a close bond. Weekly, they prepared a dinner together and shared it, along with a bottle of wine, at Noel’s kitchen table. At one point, Noël confided in me that the meeting with Ehren had been important for him, coming as it did during a time when he was still trying to come to grips with the enormous grief he felt over the loss of his wife. We tasted several wines in his rustic cellars, then adjourned to the kitchen, where Ehren and Noël assumed their customary spots at the table. Before Noel sat down, however, he walked across the room and opened the door leading down to his frigid basement. Behind it stood a recently opened bottle of Verset 1988 Cornas.
The 1988 vintage in Cornas, as I was to soon learn, had been an especially good one. Knowing how much Ehren enjoyed this wine, Noël had set aside a bottle for us to drink while we sat and talked. In a few moments, he reached behind him and withdrew from the bookcase a large, plastic-covered photo album. Drawing a satisfying gulp of wine, he opened the book to the first page, careful to tilt it so that I could see the photo, a black and white of a strikingly attractive, slender woman in a bathing suit of the 1930’s, standing on a beach on a bright summer day. Her hair was wet, presumably from a dip in the Mediterranean, which could be seen behind her in the photo. Noël said that it was his wife, during a summer vacation they took in Cannes. She died, he said, in 1988, and whenever he drank a bottle from that vintage he liked to look at the old pictures of them, enjoying the early days of their life together.
With this, he slowly turned each page, and made a comment regarding when and where it was taken. Ehren translated for me. In a few minutes, I was transfixed, both by the magnificent wine and by this beautiful woman who was, sadly, no longer part of Noël’s life. He seemed cheerful, though, especially when talking about the photos. And then I noticed a drop of moisture as it fell from his eyes and splattered on the vinyl covering the photograph. I looked at him and saw his eyes full of tears. My eyes welled up, too.
Noël ran through the rest of the album quickly now, as his teardrops were coming a bit faster and the end of the bottle was in sight. With a final sigh, he closed the book, turned his back on us for a bit longer than he needed to, then turned back to face the table. He was entirely composed by then. I can’t remember if I was.
Noël looked at me, as he was taking a final sip of wine. “So what do you think of my 1988 Cornas?” he asked. I paused for a moment, composed myself, and replied, “I think it’s the greatest Syrah I’ve ever tasted.”
Bruce Neyers Kermit Lynch National Sales Office
I was greatly saddened to hear of Noël Verset’s passing this past weekend. He certainly was one of the world’s true, iconic winemaking masters.
Sometime in the 1980’s I became so intrigued, bordering obsessed, with a group of Syrah Masters from France’s northern Rhone Valley–Chave in Hermitage, Gentaz in Cote Rotie & Clape & Verset in Cornas. Each were imported at that time by Kermit Lynch. (To that, I later would add Trollat in St Joseph & Allemand in Cornas to the list). I am most thankful to Kermit for introducing me these wines.
In hindsight, I was very fortunate to be exposed to these masterful Syrahs before the meteoric rise to superstardom by Guigal & the sheer power of high Robert Parker ratings. I therefore understood what true, authentic, pure, artisan Syrah could be.
While I genuinely loved each of these producer’s wines, the Verset Cornas truly had a special place in my heart. Above all its attributes, they had soul. People would always point out ‘flaws” in the Verset wines to me, but I REALLY didn’t care, as the Verset wines went straight from my taste buds to somewhere deep inside of me. I therefore enjoyed them on SO many levels.
I remember reading somewhere Noël’s career in wine began in 1931, working alongside his father at the tender age of 12. I believe his first vintage under his own label was sometime in the 40’s. During his 70 plus year tenure, he was able to acquire great holdings on the Cornas hillside, including Champelrose, Chaillots & Sabarotte (the soul of his wines). Interestingly, though, from those iconic lieu dits, he still produced only one Cornas.
I started hearing rumors, of an impending retirement by Noël with the 1999 vintage. I was therefore thrilled to still get some 2000……then some 2003….& finally a smidgeon of 2006. During that time, I later discovered, he had been slowly selling off his parcels to people he chose to sell to, which included Allemand & Clape, yet still made some quantities of wine for “home use”.
One of the crazy side notes to this story, is that his wines were so reasonably priced, considering how hard the vineyards were to work because of their remarkable rockiness/steepness. Furthermore, how crazy is it that Guigal & Chapoutier were getting at least 10 times the price further north for their “fruit bombs”? My mind set was always I’ll gladly take 1 bottle of Verset for 1 bottle of Guigal, much less the going rate of 10 to 1!
Yes, I am sorry to say….the end of an era.
When one is looking for top echelon Cabernet, for most wine lovers Bordeaux, France or California’s Napa Valley would probably pop up first.
Makes sense. After all, Bordeaux has quite a long history of producing world-class Cabernet based red wines. The much “younger” Napa Valley, on the other hand, vaulted onto the world wine stage, when a bottling from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars finished first in the 1976 Paris Wine Exhibition blind, comparative tasting of Californian & Bordelaise Cabernet based red wines.
What most people do not know or remember is that the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon “SLV” was followed (in order) by 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 1970 Chateau Haut Brion, 1970 Chateau Montrose & then the 1971 Ridge “Monte Bello” in fifth place.
Back then, in the late 70’s, I didn’t even stop to think that the Monte Bello vineyard was not located in the Napa Valley. This iconic vineyard is actually located at somewhere between 2000 & 2600 feet elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation, near Cupertino, overlooking the Santa Clara Valley. I remember reading somewhere, that the vineyard is roughly 83.5 acres in size, spread out on 33 parcels on the hillside, (but not sure if this information is current today).
Makes you wonder why anyone would plant vines way up there on that remote, high elevation site? AND, it makes you wonder how could they have known the quality would be akin to Californian Grand Cru?
I’ve been fortunate to have tasted the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello a few times over the years & would wholeheartedly agree it is a standout wine.
Furthermore, just so you know, the 1971 Monte Bello was NOT a one vintage wonder for the winery either. Several other vintages–1968, 1970, 1971, 1977 (one of the very best Californians I have ever had), & later the 1981 & 1985 have also really stood out.
Another non-Napa Valley Californian Cabernet Sauvignon site which has stood out to me over the years is the Laurel Glen vineyard. Located at somewhere between 800 to 1000 feet in elevation atop Sonoma Mountain, it was originally 3 acres in size (today, listed at 16 acres in size), planted in 1968 to an unknown Cabernet vine selection, (which is today considered proprietary). Grapes from the earlier vintages were sold to Chateau St Jean & Kenwood. Patrick Campbell purchased the property in 1977 & produced his first commercial vintage with the 1981. Over the years since, Laurel Glen produced some very provocative, earth driven, more elegant, balanced Cabernets……some of my favorites over the years……AND, which got better with age (unlike many of its Californian peers). I was amazed, when the 1997 was released, as it was the very first Cabernet, Patrick (& co-winemaker Ray Kaufman) produced that was over the 14 degree alcohol mark. Patrick sadly sold the estate a few years back. Thankfully, I still have some older vintages stashed away somewhere.
When speaking of Sonoma born Cabernet Sauvignon, I also really have to mention those from Scherrer Winery & owner/winemaker Fred Scherrer. The grapes actually come from his father’s vineyard located on a bench above the Silver Oak planting in Alexander Valley. I am continually amazed at how elegant, classy, refined & wonderfully layered his Cabernets are. One could say, they are Cabs, crafted by a Pinot master. I am also amazed at how much better & more harmonious each get with some bottle age. Just know, Napa Valley Cab lovers, the Scherrer renditions display red fruit, not black fruit & deftly display a stony minerality rather than decadence & opulence.
A growing hotbed today for Cabernet Sauvignon in California is Paso Robles, which is located roughly halfway between San Francisco & Los Angeles. It seems the real sweet spot for this grape variety in the region is on the westside of Highway 101, amongst the rolling hills (& therefore hillsides) born of marine influenced, calcareous soils such as limestone & siliceous clay. People are now comparing these growing conditions more & more to Bordeaux’s St Emilion sub-region. The resulting wines therefore typically feature red fruit, rather than black fruit. In addition, what really initially caught my attention was the innate minerality underlying throughout the wine from beginning to end, which not only creates interestingness, but a fascinating buoyancy too. Where Justin Winery was the ground breaking pioneers back in the 80’s, it is becoming more apparent that today the Daou brothers star is really starting to shine brightly in the category of Paso Robles Cabernet based reds. There is sure much more to follow in the future, pending dealing with the area’s extreme water shortages the past several years.
I almost excluded mentioning the vast potential I believe there is in the Happy Canyon sub-appellation of Santa Barbara. Because it much further east, it is therefore much warmer than the other Santa Barbaran subregions. Coupled with more shale & gravel soils, this has the making for some very interesting potential. Keep an eye out. Happy Canyon’s time will come!